Flag-gate in Belgrade – Just A Blip

I had not intended to write anything about the drone incident at the Euro 2016 qualifier, because I didn’t think there was much constructive to say. But then today came around, and I was planning to post something, and I had cause to write something about the whole thing for other purposes, and you know what they say about birds and stones, and well here we are. Below is my (overoptimistic? You decide!) rationale for thinking all the nonsense over the flag and the drone and the match is just that – nonsense – and won’t hinder high-level regional cooperation:

A Euro 2016 qualifier in Belgrade on October 14th between Serbia and Albania was abandoned shortly before halftime after a flag displaying the borders of a hypothetical “Greater Albania” was flown via drone over the pitch. As the drone swooped low with the flag in tow a Serbian player reached to down the offending banner, which was promptly seized by Albanian players and hustled to safety. This altercation prompted further scuffles between the players, which rapidly became a sideshow to the full-on pitch invasion staged by portions of the assembled crowd.

In the aftermath of the incident Albanian PM Edi Rama’s brother, Olsi Rama, was accused by Serb dailies and officials of having been at the controls of the drone, an unlikely charge which, if nevertheless true, would represent a shocking lack of judgment from the Albanian political establishment. Post-match recriminations continued at such a tenor as to result in the postponement of a scheduled summit between Albanian PM Rama and Serbian PM Vucic, which would have been the first visit of an Albanian PM to Belgrade since 1946.

Many are now wondering if this should be viewed as simply a blip, or as evidence of a dangerous resurgence of nationalist forces in the Western Balkans. The answer is blip. Since the visit was not immediately cancelled we can assume both leaders expect to derive benefits at least from giving the impression that it will eventually happen. Since neither politician would have suffered domestically had the visit been immediately cancelled, a post-postponement cancellation could be read as an attempt to satisfy domestic nationalist constituencies and avoid pushback from Western supporters by waiting to cancel until their attention had shifted elsewhere. But Albania and Serbia are official candidates for EU membership, meaning their behavior is subject to constant scrutiny, and an inability to maintain high-level diplomatic contacts in the face of football hooligan violence would reflect poorly to say the least on their viability as future EU members. Consequently, we can take the language on regional stability and cooperation in the PMs’ joint statement announcing the postponement as indicative of policy.